lessons from flan

There is such a thing as eating too much flan.

This nugget of wisdom hit me like a rock to the gut early in life. I was six.

We were living in Caracas, Venezuela, and my mother had just made flan. The baked custard, dripping in caramel and flavored with vanilla, was a family favorite. Like all those things one holds dear, flan was a rare treat. When it happened, we celebrated. (With flan.)

Flan leftovers never lingered, and the rule of scarcity wielded its mighty influence over a little girl with big eyes. Dedicated to the ultimate win, I practically ate my weight in custard. After dinner, I went back for seconds. Then thirds. Next, fourths. The math on this wasn’t complicated, folks, only repetitive.

Can’t say that I felt greedy, only justified. Why eat more dessert tomorrow when I could eat it that very day?

It wasn’t long before I got my answer: An epic stomach ache. Quick learner that I was, I vowed to abstain from flan. Forever.

This was fine in Venezuela, where flan was as ubiquitous as rice and beans. If I rejected flan, it was like saying no to, like, oatmeal cookies in the U.S. No big deal. Just chalk it up to being a finicky gourmand.

But they say context is everything, and it was so with flan.

A few years and many flans later, my family found itself in South Florida, living in a ranch-style house amid a working class neighborhood where we were the first foreigners to move into our street. With unspoken agreement, we all decided to take on the roles of friendly ambassadors bridging two very different worlds.

Other families on our block ate cupcakes or baked cookies. We did flan.

When my brother’s friends came over, and we had flan in the house, our cultural exchange came in the form of custard. Ditto my father, who would invite friends from his office for dinner, marking an occasion that called for — of course — flan!

As I watched others marvel and admire our very own dessert icon, I tried to fit in. After all, how was I going to convince the gringos that flan was delicious if I couldn’t even stomach it? It was hopeless — the smallest bite induced a wave of nausea that tasted strongly of eggs. I remained an outsider in a household of outsiders.

Over time, things changed. It was a small collection of events that culminated into yet another discovery: flan is good.

Like that time I was in college and a friend and I went out to a favorite Cuban place, a family-owned restaurant where the food was so good I dared to try a bite of my friend’s flan. For our next visit? I ordered my own for dessert.

Then there was that class in pastry school, where I learned to make one of flan’s culinary cousins, creme brulee. Creamy on the inside, topped with a layer of brittle burnt sugar.

And the day I decided to make flan myself. From cooking the caramel to scraping up vanilla beans to releasing the final concoction from its mold, these were moments I could enjoy without taking a single bite.

That’s a lesson worth celebrating. With flan.

carrots in cake forever

I grew up in a household with a strict produce paradigm.

Salads had tomatoes or lettuce. Maybe celery if we were feeling spunky. Meat was seasoned with garlic and onions. Anything sweet was reserved strictly for dessert.

The only exception was our beloved empanadas. Chilean empanadas are made with a hot water crust pastry that encloses practically an entire meal within its folds. Ground or diced beef is spiced with cumin and onions, and is served alongside a sliver of a hard boiled egg and one black olive. Included in the meat mix are a couple of soaked raisins. That’s how Chileans rock their sweet-and-salty combo.

But this isn’t a post about empanadas. It’s about a line drawn in the sand. It’s about carrots.

I can still remember the day when I heard gringos ate cake with carrots. I was in school at Banyan Elementary, and my classmate, Andy, was celebrating his birthday. To do so, his mother was bringing in carrot cake, and when the teacher made the announcement, the whole class clapped. The whole class except for me.

I eventually figured things out. Carrots are naturally sweet — and the cream cheese and walnuts certainly round things out nicely. However, for me carrot cake stood out as an exception. Perhaps carrots were the clever maverick in the produce department, I thought. It’s not like mushrooms would ever belong in dessert.

But then they did. When I was in pastry school in Manhattan, a local chef visited to do a demo on savory-inspired desserts. And what did he make? Mushroom ice cream, of course. This time, I did join the rest of the students when it came time to thank the good chef.

Fast forward a couple years. That’s when I found myself working at a farm-to-table restaurant in the Flatiron District where the pastry chef had zucchini cake on her dessert menu. The garnish? Candied celery leaves.

Of course.